Opinion: A fresh start for the SRC? Part I
by Helen Gym on Oct 31 2011 Posted in Commentary
There’s been favorable consensus about the new mayoral appointees to the School Reform Commission – Wendell Pritchett and Lorene Cary. Like their predecessors, they come with stellar credentials and reputations. They have also acknowledged the need to re-earn the public trust, an issue that incoming gubernatorial appointee Pedro Ramos has made an explicit priority.
But news about last week’s SRC executive session showed how challenging that effort can be, even with people as conscientious as Pritchett and Cary.
At the start of last Wednesday afternoon's SRC meeting, District General Counsel Michael Davis made a longer-than-usual announcement about the SRC's standard executive session. He informed the public that the SRC – currently composed of interim Chair Pritchett, Cary, and Joseph Dworetzky – met privately in executive session with city solicitor Shelly Smith and city integrity officer Joan Markman.
Davis explained that the purpose of the meeting was "so all members could discuss issues related to SRC operations and how meetings will go forward." He referenced recommendations arising from a "report" by Markman and said the SRC "will review various policies and practices to determine how best to go forward."
The explanation stopped there.
As most Notebook readers know, the Markman report Davis referenced was no ordinary report. Last month, Markman issued a scathing indictment of the machinations by former SRC Chair Robert Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans to reverse a decision involving a multi-million dollar school contract for Martin Luther King High School. Also implicated in that scandal were former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II.
No details of the meeting were offered. None of the SRC commissioners commented on the session. The substance of Markman's comments is not known – nor Smith's. Markman did not include recommendations in her public report. Hence, no one in the public knows what top city officials and the current SRC think about the ethical issues that plagued the old SRC – much less how they plan to fix them.
The public was left as it frequently is: back in the dark.
Some credit is due. The new SRC appointees are clearly striving for a different tone to the SRC meetings. It was a change for the better that District Counsel Davis gave more than a one-sentence summary of the executive session. He also revealed who was in the room for it – more than we've had in the past.
But it's not enough for the language around the SRC to change if problematic practices do not.
The King scandal shocked even jaded Philadelphians with the brazenness of high-level interference in a District contract, the impunity with which such actions were taken (who can forget Rep. Evans' “bulldog on a bone” description?), and the complicit silence of top-level District officials even after the Notebook and other media started to report on what had actually happened. According to Ackerman, it contributed to her falling out of favor with the Nutter administration and the SRC. Many observers attributed the overhaul of the SRC in part to this scandal.
So why hold a closed-door discussion about a major issue that rocked the very notion of the SRC’s purpose, integrity, and commitment to the public interest? Why not have an open and public conversation about any recommendations Markman may have stemming from the report – recommendations she has never put forth publicly?
I’m not even clear how this discussion met the standards for an executive session, much less the spirit of Pennsylvania's Sunshine law, which requires government bodies to do all their business in public, except for a few specific topics such as litigation.
The SRC executive sessions have long been a sore point for District observers, who questioned a practice where the SRC met as a full body behind closed doors for hours on end, then voted on resolutions with little substantial dialogue.
In this particular case, not only did the SRC hold an extensive executive session - per usual - but they also met with public officials about a very public issue. If this new SRC is to strike out into new territory, it must break this practice.
A public discussion of the report - especially any recommendations for change - could have been a critical step toward healing and rebuilding of trust. It could have been a moment for us to know where our commissioners stand on challenging issues that they may face again. The discussion could have been a opportunity for the SRC and District to tell the public how they plan to ensure that nothing like the King scandal happens again.
Maybe a productive discussion of these important issues did take place behind closed doors.
But the point is that we, the public, do not know.